Many traditional Jewish practices surrounding death, burial, and mourning–such as tearing one’s clothes when hearing of a death, respectful care for the body of the deceased, and burial in the ground–are reflected in the biblical text and in classical rabbinic literature. In the Jewish interpretive tradition, or midrash, a raven is said to have taught Adam and Eve how to bury their son, Abel, and God is depicted as lovingly attending to Moses at the time of his death.
Some basics of traditional mourning and burial practices:
• A person who hears of the death of a parent, spouse, sibling, or child is referred to as an onen (literally “someone in between”) until the funeral.
• The words “barukh dayan ha-emet” (“blessed is the true judge”) are uttered upon hearing the news, and a garment is torn.
• The body of the deceased is washed and dressed for burial with great care by the hevra kaddisha (the sacred burial society).
• The funeral–which may take place at a funeral home, in a synagogue, or at the graveside–usually includes the short prayer El Maleh Rahamim (“God full of compassion”), as well as the recitation of psalms, and a hesped, or eulogy.
• The burial is framed by other liturgical elements, including the recitation of a special version of the Kaddish prayer, often thought of as the “mourner’s prayer.”
• Mourners and others participate in covering the casket with dirt. Mourners leave the graveside first, and others say to them the traditional words, “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
• Mourning takes place in several periods, each successively less intense. It includes shiva, seven days during which mourners are visited at home by family and community, and participate in prayer services held at home; sheloshim, the first 30 days of mourning, during which mourners return to their normal routine but refrain from many customary pleasurable activities; and, for those who have lost a parent, 11months of aveilut (mourning), during which Kaddish is recited daily.
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